Introducing The Sepik & Its Tributaries
The mighty Sepik is the most famous feature of PNG and has captured the collective imagination of adventure travellers. It represents to outsiders something quintessentially primitive, and an embodiment of ideas portrayed in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a vast, densely populated river region home to isolated people (Conrad was a friend of the anthropologist Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski).
The scale of the river, the impressive architecture of haus tambarans, the beautiful stilt villages, the long canoes with crocodile-head prows, the bird life, flower-clogged lakes, misty dawns and spectacular sunsets make a visit unforgettable.
The Middle Sepik is one of the most frequently visited parts of the river, but it is not crowded with tourists – you’re unlikely to bump into other travellers. The river carries traders and missionaries, but that’s about it. While photos of Sepik villages look idyllic, they don’t show the heat and humidity, the mosquitoes or the basic village food. Nor do they indicate the meditative nature of travelling for hours every day in a motor-canoe, watching ibis take to the sky as you round a bend, or the rewards of experiencing these rich and fascinating cultures.
During the dry season water levels drop dramatically, cutting off villages and turning the lakes stagnant. The trapped water heats up resulting in a toxic algae bloom which kills the fish. Eagles then feast on the dead fish (which are found in droves on the river banks).
The river has few exploitable natural resources and has attracted little development in spite of the density of the population. Even in the face of Western influences, the people on the river are living much the same way as their ancestors – people here cook in Western pots and drive motor-powered boats and canoes, they wear Western clothes, but they still practise many traditions.
Christianity, as elsewhere in PNG, is blended with many traditional beliefs. Although most Sepik people would claim to be Christian (they go to church every Sunday) it’s a very localised interpretation. The religious world is also inhabited with the spirits of ancestors and crocodiles.
The Sepik is too big to cover, so pick a section and give yourself plenty of time to relax in the villages in between legs on the river – don’t try and do too much. Two or three Middle Sepik villages are enough for most people, and some enjoy it more when they get off the main river.
The Upper Sepik extends from the river’s source to just below Ambunti, the Middle Sepik covers from Ambunti to Tambanum and the Lower Sepik is the final section from Tambanum to the coast.
Last updated: Feb 17, 2009
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